Special Note (1/16/2016):
The below review (rating two out of four stars) reflects my original feelings about "The Lords of Salem." While many of my issues with the picture still stand upon revisiting it nearly four years laterI still wish writer-director Rob Zombie had taken better advantage of his Salem setting (especially since he shot it on location)I no longer agree that the film has an antifeminist slant. Sheri Moon Zombie's character of Heidi Hawthorne is not a mentally strong or proactive heroine, true, but this seems to be precisely Zombie's point. Above all, "The Lords of Salem" is an evocative metaphor for Heidi's inner demons, an unsparing, visually potent glimpse into a recovering addict's return descent into a drug-fueled abyss as reflected through the guise of witchcraft and Satanism. The film is far from commercial and certainly divisive, but that has turned out to be part of its allure and cult staying power. For those who perhaps did not take to "The Lords of Salem" upon first viewing, the film is certainly worthy of reconsideration.
When Rob Zombie (he of 2003's trippy, audacious "House of 1000 Corpses
," 2005's gritty "The Devil's Rejects
," 2007's misguided "Halloween
" remake, and 2009's thoughtful, redemptive "Halloween II
") announced that his latest directorial effort would be shot on location in Salem, Massachusetts, and its plot would revolve around the resurrection of the town's persecuted witches, it was impossible to not let one's imagination run rampant. If anyone could do such a twisted horror tale justice, it seemed, it was musician-turned-filmmaker Zombie. Regrettably, whether due to a lack of budget ($2.5 million) or a troubled script, the results have been botched and the one-of-a-kind setting almost completely wasted. Though admirable for moving away from the maker's comfort zone by focusing on mood and atmosphere over jump scares and a body countin this way, he has clearly been inspired by '70s Euro horror masters such as Jean Rollin and Dario Argento"The Lords of Salem" is exceedingly tough to warm up to and makes a fatally wrong decision in presenting a lead heroine who is weak and complacent throughout. How can the viewer want to root for someone who doesn't even try to put up a fight and stop the terrible circumstances befalling her?
Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a late-night radio deejay alongside colleagues Whitey Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree), heading up the witching hour at WIQZ Salem Rocks! Upon receiving in the mail a wooden box containing a vinyl record from a supposed band called The Lords, she plays it over the airwaves and unleashes...something. Pretty soon, recovering addict Heidi is experiencing awful hallucinations and dreams and doing drugs again. Meanwhile, kindly landlord Lacy (Judy Geeson) and her two visiting sisters, Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn), take a turn into psycho territory when history writer Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) comes sniffing around where he doesn't belong, trying to locate the source of the demonic record. The long-dead victims of the 17th-century Salem Witch Trials have returned, it seems, ready to claim for themselves all of their modern-day descendants.
"The Lords of Salem" is likely to perplex and disappoint Rob Zombie's fanbase (or, at least, those that aren't immediately biased and worship everything he does), if primarily because it never lives up to its ambitions. In prepping the film, Zombie went location scouting and took photographs throughout the town of Salem, a part-charming, part-spooky New England burg full of old-fashioned shops, gothic architecture, attractive lakes and cemeteries, and a community that positively thrives once October rolls around each year. There's a terrific Salem Witch Museum, where the infamous witch trials are recreated, and a high school whose football team is the Salem Witches. The town has heaps of character and only gets more hauntingly beautiful during the autumn months. Instead of using all of these places and the overall ambience of the setting to his benefit, Zombie strips the identity from the majority of his exterior scenes so that, really, it could have been shot anywhere. When the aforementioned pictures Zombie took are used over the end credits, it only stands as a reminder that he failed to take advantage of them in the film proper.
Another letdown is the picture's curious antifeminist slant. Though the bulk of the characters are women, the central ones are either evil, used as afterthoughts (such as Francis' artist wife, Alice, played by Maria Conchita Alonso), or enormously weak. This latter trait most definitely describes protagonist Heidi Hawthorne, who walks through the film as if she were in a daze. She searches for guidance early on, but even a visit to the local church has her imagining that she's performing oral on the priest as he starts foaming blood from the mouth. When this fails, she picks up her crack habit and basically lays around until her dismal fate comes knocking. At no point is Heidi pro-active, nor does she elicit strength or willpower; she simply lets things happen to her while showing little emotion. Sheri Moon Zombie has yet to give a weak performance in one of her husband's films, but has also always had more distinctive, clearly-defined roles to play. Coincidentally, it is her biggest one yet (screentime-wise) that gives her the least to do. It's not her fault her husband-director has saddled her with such a frustrating, half-formed character.
Grungy and sordid and stocked with a fair share of ominous imagery courtesy of cinematographer Brandon Trost (2012's "That's My Boy
"), "The Lords of Salem" should not be written off as a total wash. Masked specters; dirty, old enchantresses; ghastly figures looming in the corners of Heidi's apartmentRob Zombie is on his game when it comes to springing to life things best left buried in one's subconscious. He also is smart in not feeling like he must spell everything out, trusting wisely that the spare parts will interlock by the end. They do. Ponderous with little to ponder, however, "The Lords of Salem" is never actually scary or tense or about anything of substance, where the story leads certainly outlandish, but also lacking in interest, rhythm, and sympathy. Standing at an emotional distance from all that is occurring and unable to get wrapped up in such a ragdoll of a lead character as Heidi, the viewer walks away feeling the one thing horror should never elicit: indifference.